Today, Google released Google Play Editions of two of the biggest Android handsets on the market today: the HTC One ($599) and the Samsung Galaxy S4 ($649). Both have top of the line hardware and I am rather fond of the HTC One’s sleek design, but what makes these different from the same phones sitting on most store shelves is the vanilla Android OS instead of the manufacturer’s skin, Sense for HTC and TouchWiz for Samsung. This is the first time Google has ever taken devices designed for a skinned version of Android and put them on sale with vanilla Android. These two phones join Google’s own Nexus line of device as devices with pure Android as intended by Google. But what makes a phone a “Google Experience”? Is it simply running vanilla Android? Is it getting updates straight from Google? For me, the “Google Experience” goes beyond that and is only embodied by the Nexus brand.
An Experience is More than Just the OS
Vanilla Android is a great OS that is fast, smooth, and provides users with just enough features without excess bloatware, but there is more to an “experience” than just what software a device is running. Any manufacturer could easily put vanilla Android on their phones and many outside of the U.S. do, but that wouldn’t make their phones a “Google Experience.” Many would say that it’s Google’s timely updates to the OS that makes the experience, but a manufacturer using vanilla Android could potentially keep their phones updated easily since there’s no extra skinning to do. No, an experience goes beyond what software a phone is running and encompasses the design of the device as well.
This marriage of software and hardware for an experience is something many Apple iPhone users intuitively know. Just about every iPhone user shares the same experience because there is only one iPhone design each year and they all run the same iOS. While these new Google Play Editions of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 both run the same vanilla Android OS, their designs couldn’t be more different from what Google is trying to do with their Nexus line. Probably the biggest and most noticeable difference is the presence of physical buttons on these devices. Because of the rigidity of physical buttons and the design choices of the manufacturers, users of these phones need to jump through a couple of hoops to access some of the same features a Nexus device takes for granted. For example, instead of having a dedicated software button for multitasking, users will have to double press the home button. Google Now is accessed by holding the home button instead of swiping up from the home button. Finally, none of these have a dedicated menu button. With a Nexus device, a software menu button is simply added to the navigation bar if needed by the app. All of the Nexus devices have moved on to software buttons, which are more customizable and provide flexibility, as seen with the menu button. It is through the Nexus line that Google attempts to push new experiences as seen with Near Field Communication (NFC) in the Nexus S, software buttons on the Galaxy Nexus, and, while the Nexus 4 had no distinguishing features, it showed Google’s commitment to providing a well designed phone that felt like a premium product for a great price.
The Future of “Google Play Edition” Phones
The true Google Experience is in the Nexus line where hardware and software meet in the way Google intended. The decision to put vanilla Android on two of the most popular Android phones on the market is a strange move on Google’s part because only the most diehard of Android fans will know about these and even fewer will be willing to spend that amount of money knowing they can buy a Nexus 4 for a couple hundred dollars less. On top of that, because this is a new initiative by Google, there’s no telling how much support the devices will actually get. When Android 4.3 or 5.0 are ready to roll out, will these phones be first in line with the next Nexus phone and the Nexus 4 or will they end up being second string along with the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S? Perhaps these phones are good for the interim while waiting for the next Nexus phone and these phones do provide options that a Nexus device doesn’t such as a removable battery and SD card slot (Samsung Galaxy S4) and better audio and lowlight camera (HTC One). Still, it seems to be a tough pill to swallow when a new Nexus phone is probably just a few months away from being unveiled in November. While I applaud Google for giving vanilla Android fans more options, this is a far cry from having vanilla Android on every phone and making manufacturer skins act as launchers. It is a temporary solution and still leaves CDMA users who cannot use any of the phones Google sells through their Play Store hanging out to dry with no good vanilla Android options. To top it all off, these two phones do not embody the entire Google Experience – an experience that extends beyond software but to the way hardware and software interact together to provide a solid experience. The true Google Experience is in Google’s Nexus devices.